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World Architecture Festival hits Berlin, focuses on global housing

Firms large and small alike showcased their work in the realm of global shelter

In today’s unstable environmental, social, and political climate, can architects play a role in creating a more equal society? Organizers of the World Architecture Festival, held last week in Berlin, Germany, seem to think so.

The festival focused on the theme of “Housing for Everyone” and the challenges this concept presents to those in the architecture field whose services tend to cater to the wealthy few. Speakers explored the theme in a series of lectures on topics ranging from making high-end housing concepts more inclusive, to the challenges of designing temporary structures for refugees and innovating “cradle-to-grave” living.

In addition to presenting discussions and debates, the festival featured firms from around the world presenting 343 projects they hoped would clinch awards. Keeping with the festival’s theme, the “Housing—Completed Buildings” category was chock-full of innovative projects.

“The WAF awards [are] about how [to] make the world a better place through architecture,” says Shannon Joe of New Zealand firm Warren and Mahoney Architects. “We tried to achieve this by exploring the concept of identity.”

Their entry, Pacific Games Village, was built to house 4,000 athletes and officials for the the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea and now houses university students. The buildings draw inspiration from indigenous architecture and the heritage of the country’s 800-plus tribes.

“Our challenge was how to make the village speak about a single national identity,” said Joe, citing the difficulty of creating an architectural symbol of unity for the nation, which has been the site of sectarian conflict. In a country where much of the urban architecture consists of improvised communities, the architect hopes the village will be a source of national pride for generations to come. “We wanted to ask how a country can be moved by architecture.”

Another finalist that aimed to inspire through design—albeit in a very different way—was D’Leedon, a residential project in Singapore by Zaha Hadid Architects. “We’re bringing some of what you can deliver on a high-end luxury project to a large residential development,” said Project Director Michele Pasca di Magliano.

The architect added that it’s part of the firm’s underlying agenda for housing developments: “We want them to offer more for residents and and the city than just a place to go at the end of your day. It’s a place where you can be inspired by design.”

1,700 apartments are arranged in seven column-like towers that appear to sway as they rise, making the most of the ground space in the dense Asian metropolis. Now home to Singaporean families, expats, and elderly residents, the apartments are designed for cradle-to-grave living, featuring bathrooms that can be modified to suit elderly residents, and apartments that can be joined as families grow.

Some entries—like the Y:Cube in Mitcham, London, by British firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners—were designed to address social inequality in the housing market. Created for the YMCA, the homes offer those aided by the nonprofit organization comfortable starter homes.

“There’s an increasing problem of homelessness here in the U.K. because housing has become unaffordable,” says Ivan Harbour, a partner at the firm. “We also have high land prices, which makes it very hard for people who have nothing to get on that housing ladder.”

Harbour says the average renter will spend less than $5 a week on heating, making the houses both affordable and efficient. Made of eco-friendly timber, the 300-square-foot cubes are built off-site to reduce costs and are both modular and demountable, which means they’re suitable for a variety of terrains and configurations.

The press darling of the group was undeniably Bjarke Ingels Group’s VIA 57 West in Manhattan. The hulking silver tetrahedron overlooking the Hudson River stays true to the firm’s reputation for boundary-pushing forms. It’s even spurred the use of a new term: the “courtscraper.”

The building rises to its full height of 32-stories on one side, while the opposite side remains low, resembling European Perimeter Block buildings. In addition to market-rate apartments, VIA 57 West also includes 142 low-income units, with studios starting at $565 per month.

The winner of the category was the Aluminum Tip building in Paris’s 11th arrondissement by local architects Babin + Renaud, a pair whose 20-year-old firm often takes on the challenge of creating unique housing solutions in the cramped French capital.

This particular social housing project came at a low cost to both the client and architects and was hailed in a joint statement by the category’s judges as a “jewel-like building, beautifully and simply detailed.” The panel said it was “exemplary” in using such urban in-fill sites in a “memorable and sustainable way,” but pointed out that the category on the whole was “extremely strong with an extraordinary range of new housing typologies.”